Eastern Shore Heritage

"From the muddy tidal flats of the Wicomico River, Colonial wharf reclaimed"

by Brice Stump

"The Sunday Times", Sunday, March 10, 2002, pages C1 and C3


Just a few inches under the black soupy mud of Bell Creek is the nation's oldest wharf.

Discovered at Pemberton Hall, just two miles south of Salisbury along the Wicomico River, the remains of an 18th century wharf are unlike any yet found in the country, according to Susan Langley, state underwater archaeologist for Maryland.

Testing has dated the wharf to 1747.

"We believe this is the earliest bulkhead style wharf in the country and probably the second earliest wharf of any sort" in the nation she said. There may be earlier examples surviving in the nation, Langley said, but they have yet to be found.

Bulkhead style, she explained, means three sides of the wharf are surrounded by water, the fourth by shore. Those known to have been in Baltimore, she said, were routinely backfilled with trash during the 18th century.

"Here it was filled with twigs, sticks, dirt and shells," she said, disappointed that no noteworthy artifacts had been found.

The early name for the site was Mulberry Landing. Col. Isaac Handy, who built Pemberton Hall in 1741 (he bought almost 1,000 acres from Joseph Pemberton in 1726), purchased the two-acre landing property in 1745 from Purnell Johnson. The two operated the landing until Handy built the current wharf in 1747, said Bill Wilson, co-chairman of the Pemberton Hall Foundation.

For Wilson, the discovery and dating of the wharf is a major event.

"I'm very excited. It's another step toward full documentation of what was at Pemberton Hall. The wharf hasn't been touched or built on and its style and age gives us national status."

Unique size and construction

Even by today's standards the wharf's size is impressive, as was its unique method of construction. Logs were joined and held in position by dovetail joints, a centuries-old method routinely used in metal work, buildings and cabinetry. There are also notched logs that were secured with iron "drift pins" or treenails.

In the 18th century, Bell's Creek was known as Otter Gut, a tributary off the Wicomico River (called Rockawalkin River in Handy's day) at what was then an ideal location for one of the largest Colonial wharves on the Shore.

"It is at least 200 feet long," Wilson said, "projecting more than 12 feet into the creek." Some of the yellow pine timbers used measure more than 3 feet thick. Some samples of walnut and cedar were also found.

"This was a really large wharf (by 18th century standards) for a rural setting," she said. "For a plantation wharf it is substantial. This was a major undertaking and it was well built. They put money in this wharf."

The Bell Creek channel had to be much deeper than it is now, Langley said, as the wharf seems to have been built for direct loading and unloading of ships.

Handy had part-ownership of three ships, Langley said, and from this wharf, the businessman may have shipped lumber, grain, apples, cloth, hard cider and perhaps leather, as well as handling goods for his neighbors. The wharf was still in operation through the Civil War, Wilson said, but by the late 1800s it was no longer in use.

Also remaining is the original quarter-mile right-of-way road that connected the wharf to what is now Crooked Oak Lane. The "swale" (road bed) that long identified the outline of the centuries-old route can still be seen.

Accurate dating

Dating the structure relied on state-of-the-art tests, Langley said, that examined tree rings in the lumber. Because the logs were only shaped on the top and bottom for fitting, the bark was left on the remaining two sides. That was crucial, Langley said, to get an accurate dendrochronology dating from the tree rings.

By comparing the structure of the rings to other trees - known to have been cut at specific times in a given region and used in dated structures - allows dates to be set, Wilson said. While the new computer-dating process is accurate, it isn't cheap. Nailing down the date for the wharf's construction cost $2,500, and a major contribution from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore helped pay for the tests.

Sixteen tree samples were studied.

"The fellow that did our analysis said there was no fungus, no dry rot, no insect damage," she said. "That meant the logs were used relatively quickly after they were cut. They didn't lay around and weren't stockpiled."

Remarkably, the mud-covered wood of the 250-year-old trees look as good as new just a few inches under their exterior and even smell of pine oil.

Wilson discovered the wharf in 1972. "I had a pretty good idea what it was. We had the documentation that there was a wharf here," he said.

Investigation of the wharf began several years ago.

"It took a couple of weekends for years," Langley said, to conduct a survey of the site as volunteers wrestled with tides, mud and draining water as they uncovered timbers for examination.

"This is extremely important historically. The wharf has to stay where it is, waterlogged and mud-covered," Wilson said. In these conditions, Langley said, the wharf will probably remain intact for another 250 years.

Dense mud-protected wood

"This mud is beautiful for preservation, but when I took and [sic] shower and went to dry off, I noticed it hadn't come off. I had to scrub it off with a brush. It's very dense," Langley said. That density saved the wood.

"There had been some talk, before we knew it was as early as it is, to reconstruct a portion of it on site. That won't happen now," he said. A section of the wharf will be rebuilt upriver, he said, to show construction techniques to visitors.

State and federal agencies have jurisdiction over the site, she said. Because it is covered by tidal wetland regulations, those agencies determine how the wharf is investigated and managed. "It's illegal for anyone to take anything from the wharf or Pemberton Hall property," Wilson said, concerned that "artifact hunters" will disturb the site.

Thirteen state agencies have input in the future of this site, Langley said.

Pemberton Hall was the first site in the state to receive placement on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1960s and the foundation will now have the wharf site included.

A special tour of the house and property is set for March 23 from 1 to 3 p.m. and will include the wharf. Preregistration is required by calling the Wicomico County Department of Parks and Recreation at 410-860-2447. There is a $3 charge for each guest.